NORFOLK, Va. -- In a season greatly affected by injuries and turmoil, Larry Yarbray will tell you it hasn't been a smooth ride for Coppin State.
A senior guard from Chester, Pa., Yarbray is the only Eagles player who started two years ago, when they won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament and went to the NCAA tournament. One game into this season, Yarbray's attitude got him suspended for three games by coach Fang Mitchell. He also missed three games in January because of ankle problems that still are bothering him.
All but three Coppin State players have "DNP" -- Did Not Play -- somewhere in their season's statistics report, but now it appears the Eagles are of sound mind and body. They open the MEAC tournament today (3 p.m.) with a quarterfinal against South Carolina State.
"We understand that if we all come together," Yarbray said, "we can beat anyone here."
If Coppin State plays as it did in February, when it went 3-6 and lost four MEAC games by a total of 13 points, the Eagles probably will be making an early exit. Mitchell, Yarbray and others, however, say they can resume the caliber of play that had them at 11-5 overall in late January and gain Coppin State its second MEAC tournament title and NCAA berth in three years.
The Eagles finished the regular season at 15-12 overall, and Mitchell said he was surprised the record was that good.
"We felt at the beginning of the year that a .500 record would be a good year," said Mitchell, whose senior class last season included Larry Stewart, now with the Washington Bullets, and all-time leading scorer Reggie Isaac. "We don't have a go-to guy, and the lack of leadership hurt us in all those close losses, but these guys do play hard.
"We were going great before all those injuries hit. They staggered us. Now, we've got everyone healthy."
Besides Yarbray, who has 620 career assists, four other key players have missed games because of injuries.
Darren Woods, a skinny senior forward who is Coppin State's best scoring threat in the low post, missed five games last month with a sprained knee. In that same span, an ankle sprain benched sophomore swingman James Mazyck for four games. In January, Mazyck, the 1990-91 MEAC Rookie of the Year, was suspended for five games for disciplinary reasons. Sophomore center Coleman Scott, a transfer who didn't play in the first semester, was out for two games with a bad back, and freshman guard Keith Carmichael missed a game with a bruised thigh.
All played in a regular-season-ending, 70-67 loss to North Carolina A&T. The Aggies and Howard shared first place in the MEAC with 12-4 records, but they hardly outdistanced the pack during the regular season. Besides Coppin State and defending champion Florida A&M, Delaware State and South Carolina State had their moments.
Morgan State was 5-22 in the regular season, but coach Michael Holmes said his Bears shouldn't be overlooked in their 6:30 p.m. quarterfinal against North Carolina A&T. Morgan State was in the same position last year, when it upset South Carolina State in the first round.
"I'm excited about the way our kids are playing right now," said Holmes. "Considering all the ridicule and injuries we've faced, I'm proud of our players."
Terrence Wright was expected to play the point, but was hurt in the season opener. The Bears lost their first nine games, and in their first victory, leading scorer Ural Hogans broke a bone in his shooting hand, ending his season. Terry Butler, a transfer from New Mexico State who was counted on inside, was academically ineligible for the season.
At least five players left Morgan State after 1989-90, which saw coach Nat Frazier fired in midseason. Two sophomores who left could play major roles in the MEAC tournament. Jamaine Williams is a first-team conference All-Star forward for North Carolina A&T, and Charles Solomon is the center for Howard.